Our last blog post on the impact of visuals in children’s learning process (Empowering the Brain in Learning Using Visuals) received considerable attention and I promised to publish new research about the power of bilingualism as a bio-hacking tool in our life. I have asked Ms. Xue Yan Chen to tell us more about her recent projects at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Ms. Chen is currently pursuing a dual degree in Cognitive Psychology and Applied Learning Science where she focuses on understanding human-computer interaction and multilingual processing:
Should I let my kids study a second or third language? This is a question that many parents are curious about. No doubt, learning a foreign language can expand career opportunities and build a gateway into other cultures as we live in a more globalized and hyper-connected world. However, many parents and educators may have concerns about whether the demands of learning two or more languages would cause negative consequences.
There are misgivings that children might get confused as more languages are constantly juggling and competing in their brain and could affect their learning and cognitive development. However, as recent neuro-imaging studies have suggested, bilingual speakers do not suffer intellectually as a result of their bilingualism. Rather, there is a strong indication that learning two languages positively influences brain development.
Being bilingual or multilingual not only brings linguistic benefits but also confers many cognitive advantages to children.
- Some of the most clearly demonstrated evidence suggest that bilingualism enhances metalinguistic awareness, development of Theory of Mind, and Executive Functions in children. Metalinguistic awareness refers to the conscious perception and awareness of how languages works and the ability to objectify language as a process. One of the tasks to measure metalinguistic awareness is the “wug” test, in which children are asked to generate new forms from fictional words such as the past tense of “blick” or the plural form of “wug”. Studies have shown that bilingual children tend to outperform monolingual children in this type of tests (Barac & Bialystok, 2012).
- Another cognitive benefit associated with bilingualism is earlier success within theory of mind framework. Theory of mind is the ability to attribute mental states to self and others. Recent studies have revealed that bilingualism helps develop the theory of mind because bilingual speakers’ “early socio-linguistic awareness of their interlocutor’s language background” (Rubio-Ferna´ndez &Glucksberg, 2012) might enhance their understanding that people can have different beliefs and perspectives from them.
- Another cognitive advantage enjoyed by bilingual children entail stronger enhancement of Executive Functions, such as problem-solving, inhibitory control, mental flexibility and attention. Interestingly, bilingual children have increased grey matter density in some areas of the brain such as anterior cingulate cortex and left supramarginal gyrus. According to a study conducted by Videsott et al. (2012), children who speak more than one language are better at detecting target stimulus than their monolingual peers which suggests they have a better attentional system. This depends on their level of proficiency of their languages.
These cognitive benefits can have lifelong impact on children’s social and cognitive development that goes beyond language development. Thus, the potential for bilingual and multilingual children far outweighs the possible negative consequences.